I was at a clothing store, at the shoes aisle, looking at flip flops when suddenly I felt someone’s hand rubbing my belly. I looked up and saw that the hand was attached to a giggling middle-aged woman whom I have never met before in my life. This is not the first time this has happened. Though I’ve been in Vietnam for four years, it still shocks me and makes me wonder how to respond.
I am a fat woman. I don’t just feel fat, like most slender women who like to complain to their significant others “Does this dress make me look fat?” By any angle or medical definition, I am clearly fat. I’m ok with that. I exercise regularly and eat right according to my doctor, and so what if I still got more to love?
Around the world, the stereotype is that all people from the US (which is where I’m from) are fat. That’s not true. However, it’s not uncommon to have fat people, just like it’s not uncommon to have thin people, and everyone in between.
Vietnam is a different story. In terms of body diversity, most Vietnamese people are about the size of my thigh. Even my mother, who is considered a petite woman in the US, had to buy XXL clothing here when she came to visit.
Moving to Vietnam I expected shock because of a new country, new language, new customs since I was American. I didn’t realize how much of the cultural shock would be related to me being fat as well. I’ve heard it all from strangers and friends telling me that I’m fat, asking me why I’m fat, how long I’ve been pregnant, saying that I should lose weight to become attractive, that I should pay more for a xe om because of my weight, and that I should play Santa Claus at Christmas parties, etc.
Though in the US blunt comments about weight would be considered vicious, in Vietnam there is little serious malicious intent. It’s more like stating a fact. If someone is fat, what’s wrong with saying they’re fat? Also, it’s more normal to freely talk about appearance, not just weight. Just as someone would call me fat, they will tell the person next to me that their nose is too flat. Though I find it jarring to hear those types of comments, I realize they don’t necessarily carry the same intent and connotation as they would in the US. By being an expat living here I’m trading one set of cultural rules and norms for another set.
Many of my awkward interactions with people regarding my weight are not only due to cultural differences but also to the fact that people here may not be used to seeing that many fat people. Sometimes I’ve become an unofficial representative of fat people, accidentally challenging stereotypes just by being myself. Co-workers have told me that they were surprised by my work ethic and lifestyle because they thought that all fat people were lazy. I used to teach at a university in the Mekong Delta, and one of my students texted me excitedly that she just saw the film “Hairspray”, which features a fat heroine, on TV. She said “The girl in Hairspray is just like you teacher. She is so fat but is so nice”. Though I was touched by the sentiment, a part of me couldn’t help wonder “Why fat BUT nice? The two are not mutually exclusive.”
Though those actions may mean something different in Vietnam, it’s still difficult for me to not find the weight-related comments hurtful. Lindy West, a noted writer, states it beautifully: « When you’re a fat person, what you do is you carry around your biggest insecurity. You wear it on your body every day, and you can’t hide it because you are it, so it’s like you’re wearing a board that says ‘Here’s where to hurt me’. » It’s a challenge figuring out how to react and reconcile wanting to respect that you are in a different cultural context with the fact that you do have very real feelings of hurt and anger.
In my personal experience, I found that humor can be more effective than angry lectures (especially since my Vietnamese is quite broken). When I was at that clothing store where that stranger rubbed my belly, I didn’t yell or let my annoyance show. I simply rubbed her belly back. At first, she looked shocked and surprised, like “Who is this weirdo and why is she touching me?”, then there was this sudden look of realization “Oh wait, that’s totally what I just did to her”, and then we both laughed.